In this moment when more and more people are calling us to denounce family members who vote the wrong way, I find myself thinking of a passage from an essay I wrote many years ago about Albert Camus:
Camus… was himself a pied noir; his family’s roots in Algeria went back a century and a half. Members of his family, including his mother, still lived in Algeria and were endangered daily by the FLN’s random shootings and bombings. Yet Camus was not, nor had he ever been, indifferent to the abuses the French had inflicted on the Arabs of Algeria. Indeed, in the 1930s, at the beginning of his career as a writer, Camus had striven ceaselessly to call attention to these abuses, but he was generally ignored — by the French Left no less than the Right.
So he was not pleased to have a difficult and morally complex political situation reduced to an opportunity for French intellectuals to strike noble poses: to those who would ‘point to the French in Algeria as scapegoats (‘Go ahead and die; that’s what we deserve!’),’ Camus retorted, ‘it seems to me revolting to beat one’s mea culpa, as our judge-penitents do, on someone else’s breast.’ Those who are really so guilt-stricken at the French presence in Algeria should ‘offer up themselves in expiation.’
Camus boldly affirmed that his family, ‘being poor and free of hatred’ — and Camus really was raised in abject poverty — ‘never exploited or oppressed anyone. But three quarters of the French in Algeria resemble them and, if only they are provided reasons rather than insults, will be ready to admit the necessity of a juster and freer order.’ It should, then, be possible to give the proper rights and freedoms to Algerian Arabs without condemning and destroying the pieds noirs indiscriminately, or forcing them out of the only country they had ever known.
But such subtleties were lost on almost everyone involved in this conflict. When Camus received the Nobel Prize in 1957 and gave a press conference in Stockholm, he was bitterly condemned by an Arab student for failing to endorse the FLN. His reply was simple, direct, and forceful: ‘I have always condemned the use of terror. I must also condemn a terror which is practiced blindly on the Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.’